October 27, 2014 Subject:
The correct name of this author is "RWB Lewis" the author of many biographies, especially well known is his bio of Edith Wharton.
March 13, 2010 Subject:
The American Adam reviewed
The Exceptional Race of Adams
By: Rittvika Singh
American Adam, Tragedy Innocence and Tradition in Nineteenth Century, by R.W.B Lewis, promises to ‘disentangle’ the myth of the American Adam from the on going dialogue in America between the decades of 1820-60 in this work. American Adam here implies the image of an American man as Adam, before fall who was believed to be inherently innocent, vulnerable, but with immense potential to build a new world and a new history. To speak in Lewis’s own words ‘it was tragedy inherent in his innocence and newness…which established the pattern of American fiction’ or a tradition of American fiction. The tragedy also was the view that Adam had to fall and suffer to attain manhood for his survival in the world which was not like him. (Though it was considered, not as a tragic but a ‘fortunate fall’ by the ‘hopefuls’). Thus, Tragedy, Innocence and Tradition. This idea of projecting man as Adam was supported and rejected at the same time. Those who supported it were categorized in the party of Hope and those who rejected it harking back to the past were grouped in the Party of Memory by Emerson. Lewis adds one more category to this division of thoughts and also divides writers accordingly. Party of Irony, as he calls it ‘for the lack of any proper name’ comprises of the people who had a mid way between these two extremes. People who left party of Memory continued to the party called party of Irony whose aim was ‘not to destroy the hopes of the hopefuls but to perfect them’, but only by the use of the past tradition. It believed in the ‘heightened perception of humanity’ which could be attained only through the tragedy of fall. Lewis includes all those who actively took part or contributed in this debate of pro and anti-Adam analyzing their respective works in great detail.
The entire idea of placing the American man equipped with all adamic attributes emerges as another facet of the program, what we have been calling American Exceptionalism and which also shares its contours with Nationalism. Literature or to speak in Lewis’s term ‘the dialogue’ which engages with this idea, and also from which the progression of this idea is sketched out, thus also becomes a propaganda of American Exceptionalism. Dorothy Ross in her book Origins of American Social Science talks about three ‘generic varieties’ of American belief in their uniqueness. She propounds three varieties as - Supernaturalists expressions, Genetic interpretations, and environmental explanations. Supernaturalists expression emphasizes the American conviction of their nation and its people being chosen one by God to guide the world to the light. While the other two varieties lay emphasis on the racial trait, ethnicity, gender and geography, climate, social structure, political economy, respectively. If the Idea of Adam and Supernaturalists expression is linked together American Adam becomes an ‘allegorical’ figure of the American idea of exclusivity. What makes this exclusivity nationalistic is the urge of making and passing the literature of America as something created far from the influence of the European one. Lewis quotes Melville ‘…we want no American Goldsmiths; nay we want no American Miltons…Let us boldly condemn all imitation.’ (page.134)
Moreover, through this Adamic man what becomes apparent is the deeply rooted, American belief in religion. The God- fearing and moralistic society which believes in the ‘second chance of humanity to rise from their fall and create a new world for themselves’, comes to be scrutinized closely through this notion of Adam. Also, at the same time, scrutinizing the Adamic figure itself, quite like the ‘institutions of conduct and conduct of institution measure each other’ as Lewis says in the case of Scarlet Letter (pg.112). This religious Adam believing society also gives a way to the dreaming society, to be specific, the society which wishes of the realization of the American dream. The creation of Adam for the representation of American man, that too the Adam before fall entails the implicit desire of creating an Eden which will be America. Though Adamic representation suffered lots of changes with the changing perspectives of different thinkers and literates, what remained recurring was this figure of Adam in some or the other form, in the later ages. Also, in the years to come the desire of Eden seems to be cut off from the whole notion of Adam and emerge as an American dream separately and individually.
To quote from the article Rethinking America: A Trans-Civilization Approach, ‘American studies for an Indian scholar are inevitably comparative, enabling him to see both societies in perspective’1. This is what Lewis seems to do in his own nation when he fixes his scene of studying the American myth, ‘for the most part in New England and Atlantic Seaboard’. Furthermore, he can be seen drawing comparisons between his own and other writings. For example, the comparison of Whitman to the works of Dante’s and Shakespeare (page 49).Quite explicitly he explains the relationship of an American writer to European tradition, ‘For the American Writer has never (if he is honest and American) been able to pretend an authentic initial communion with the European past; and especially not if he begins …imbued with the anti-traditional principles of the party of Hope. He can know a great deal, even everything about the past; he can go after it which is just the demonstration that he is not in communion with it. And if he establishes a communion, it is one of a quite different order from that which most European writers –until 1939, at least- possessed as their birth right. The American kind of communion will usually be a sort of tussle and the best of our writers (like Melville) can convert the tussle into drama. At the same time, since the American man is outside the Organic world of European Literature to start with, there is no limit to how much of the word he can draw upon. Nothing is his by right, and so nothing constrains him, and nothing ultimately is denied to him. Such has been and such must continue to be the actual relation between the American writer and the European tradition: a queer and vigilant relation at once hospitable and hostile, at once unlimited and uneasy.’ This business of borrowing from the foreign tradition can also be seen in this excerpt from Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands. He writes, though in the context of Indian English writers in England, ‘…we can quite legitimately claim our ancestors the Huguenots, the Irish, the Jews, the past to which we belong is an English past, the history of immigrant Britain. Swift, Conrad, Marx are as much our literary forbears as Tagore or Ram Mohan Roy.2’ Today, when we are in the post- colonial era, this statement of Rushdie is true not only for the Indian English writer in England but also in India. What Rushdie is trying to assert is almost similar to what Lewis is saying (considering their colonial past as well), but the sole difference lies in the manner of acknowledgement. While it is through embrace for us, it is by a ‘tussle’ for them, the borrowing process from the other tradition. Perhaps, this is one more factor which separates America from India and also from rest of the world. Rushdie continues ‘America, as a nation has created great literature out of the phenomenon of cultural transplantation, out of it may be that by discovering what we have in common with those who preceded us into this country, we can begin to do the same.’ Contrary to this Lewis is constantly trying to disown this commonality throughout the book. He does it by applying (not ‘disentangling’) the myth of Adam to the literature of the age. For example, when he compares Whitman to Dante and Shakespeare, he writes ‘In Whitman, artistic innocence merged with moral innocence …-something not at all shared by Dante or Shakespeare’ In another instance he also differentiates the novel Arthur Mervyn (1799) by Charles Brockden Brown from its contemporary Ann Radcliff’s The Mysteries of Udalpho (1794), for the fact they were much compared then. He writes- Arthur resembles his American successors in so far as he is genuinely solitary. Indeed he seem to have no relations in time, he has no past and no inheritance to help or hinder him…In the typical Gothic novel of Europe- such as The Mysteries of Udalpho by Mrs., Ann Radcliffe – the plight of hero or the heroine is a family affair (page 98). As it can be seen here the criteria of differentiation is the application of the myth of Adam uniquely belonging to the nation of America.
Linking this ‘differentiation’ with my first point about the American Exceptionalism, I can come to the thesis point. Lewis looks back to the thinkers and writers of the age in the process of pointing out the path which this myth has taken in the literature, he sees the writers bestowed with the quality of Adam himself. The Adam at the moment of creating new history is the American writer who is creating a new literature for the nation. So, the myth of American Adam which sees the American race as an exceptional race also makes the American literature an exceptional one when viewed in the milieu of the world literature.
Disentangling or what I call applying, the myth of the Adam, what it also seems to be doing is to resuscitate the idea of Adam which had been the vital part of the American tradition. Undoubtedly Lewis himself associate himself with the Party of Irony (as he calls it), he wishes the Adamic figure to return in the literature for that is and will be the true representation of an American for years to come. The unique man, ‘the simple genuine self against the whole world’ Adam, thus belongs to America. It is quite apparent in the last lines of the book when Lewis talks about the recent novelists like J.D Salinger, Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow and how they have written Adam. He says, ‘These novelists do not, of course, write simply in order to keep alive some particular American tradition. Nor is it the tradition they are working in which accounts for their artistic accomplishment. But taken together and along with the few others, the novels I mention do suggest the indestructible vitality of the Adamic vision of life- and what that vision can contribute to the alchemical process of the narrative art. They suggest that the vision and the process which transforms it can, after all, continue to present us with the means of grasping the special complexities, the buoyant assurance, and the encircling doubt of the still unfolding American scene.”
Lewis, R.W.B, American Adam, Tragedy Innocence and Tradition in Nineteenth Century, Phoenix Books, The University of Chicago Press.1955
Paranjape Makarand, Rethinking America: A Trans-Civilization Approach